Our Crimes and Theirs: Mosul and Aleppo Viewed Through the Lens of Empire

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Our Crimes and Theirs: Mosul and Aleppo Viewed Through the Lens of Empire

As the bloody push to liberate Mosul from ISIS enters its third month, it goes without saying that the mainstream media in the West, by ignoring or bowdlerizing reports of human rights violations by the Iraqi security forces and US-led coalition, will continue to expose themselves as a gang of frauds. Before getting into details about what’s happening in Mosul, I’ll ask that you cast your mind back to the deluge of fury expressed over the Syrian government’s successful efforts to recapture east Aleppo from al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and other Wahhabi terrorists.

Do you remember? Of course you do—it was all over the news, all the time. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, was implementing a policy of genocide. A quarter of a million innocent people were being bombed and/or starved to death inside the rebel enclave. That figure—250,000—became something of a media mantra, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was wildly inaccurate. As veteran journalist Robert Fisk recently observed:

The 250,000 “trapped” Muslims of eastern Aleppo – now that 31,000 have chosen to go to Idlib, many more to western Aleppo – appear to have been somewhat fewer than 90,000. It’s now possible that at least 160,000 of the civilians “trapped” in eastern Aleppo did not actually exist, but no one says so. That vital statistic of 250,000, the very punctuation mark of every report on the besieged enclave, is now forgotten or ignored (wisely, perhaps) by those who quoted it.

Naturally, anyone who dared challenge this bit of fake news while it was still in rotation risked being slandered as an “Assadist” or, better yet, an “apologist for genocide.” Ditto for anyone audacious enough to point out that the “moderate rebels” holding down the fort in east Aleppo were in fact a collection of jihadists, many of them foreign nationals, all of them supported by the Sunni Gulf states as well as Turkey. Incidentally, a similar slur—”Saddamist”—was once applied to the troublemakers who expressed misgivings about the Iraq war and went so far as to demand evidence of Saddam’s nonexistent WMD program. These so-called Saddamists were later vindicated, of course, but not before being smeared and ridiculed by the guardians of state power, known colloquially as the corporate media. Needless to say, those peddling the bullshit narrative faced no consequences for their knavery; their propaganda carries no less weight.

Indeed, the media hacks who sold us Bush and Cheney’s war of destruction are the same ones who have since agitated for regime change in Libya, Syria and Iran, and who are now doing everything they can to resurrect the Cold War. The song remains the same.

Consumers of world news will recall that media outrage vis-à-vis Syria first reached a crescendo in August 2013, when sarin gas was used to attack a suburb of Damascus, killing several hundred people. While common sense suggested that it was a false flag operation carried out by the opposition—with the goal of pushing Obama over his so-called redline—every major news outlet in the US charged Assad with the atrocity and prescribed military intervention as the solution. The utter lack of evidence was, as always, immaterial; here was a prime opportunity to establish a pretext for military aggression, and the armchair warriors would be damned if they let it go to waste.

Their efforts very nearly bore fruit. Citing the horrors of the chemical attack, Obama announced plans to bomb the Syrian government, only to dither and ultimately change tack. Conventional wisdom holds that, in failing to pull the proverbial trigger on Syria, Obama betrayed his innate wimpishness. In fact the opposite is true. He was weak to allow Hillary Clinton to bully him into bombing Gaddafi’s forces in Libya; it took courage and strength to defy the Syria hawks in the State Department who, channeling Iago, were manipulating him for their own sordid ends. Between that and the Iran nuclear deal, Obama deserves immense credit.

By the time Russia intervened in September 2015, the writing was on the wall: Assad was not going anywhere, and the window for US intervention was closed. A surge in propaganda duly followed, and soon the media had zeroed in on Aleppo, expressing grave concern for the welfare of the civilian population and publishing story after story that relied heavily—oftentimes exclusively—upon sources embedded in rebel-held territory, because objectivity is overrated anyway.

This contempt for honest and objective reporting came to a head in December, with the official “fall” of east Aleppo. Taking the cake, I think, is a febrile story in The Daily Beast—sensationally titled “Women in Aleppo Choose Suicide Over Rape, Rebels Report” (something tells me the pitiful qualifier was affixed after publication)—in which Islamist fighters and their “media activists” provide the bulk of the unverified allegations. The authors also cite quotations from the White Helmets, describing them as a “volunteer rescue group,” in spite of the fact that they’ve been exposed as a terrorist propaganda organization on numerous occasions.

The title charge—that women were committing suicide to avoid being raped—comes from a rebel commander and occupies fully twelve of the article’s more than two-thousand words. Moreover, a shocking claim made in the story’s subtitle, namely that “children are [being] burned alive,” is never mentioned again. The Daily Beast, in other words, is giving clickbait a bad name. At any rate, this pseudo-journalistic trash illustrates the depth to which elements of our media were prepared to plunge in the service of demonizing the Syrian and Russian governments. (On that note, one senses that certain Western journalists were actually let down when the Syrian army began safely evacuating civilians out of east Aleppo, as opposed to slaughtering them en masse.)

The point, as I and others have written before, is not that Assad is innocent of all the crimes with which he has been charged (on the contrary, plenty of war crimes have been verified, most notably indiscriminate bombing and torture); rather, it’s that we in the West wouldn’t pay them the slightest degree of attention if Assad happened to be an ally. You would think this would be axiomatic by now; after all, Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent was published twenty-nine years ago. But no such luck.

It is therefore useful to compare the coverage of Aleppo described above with that of Mosul, since the two conflicts bear a striking resemblance, the only real difference being that the bombs falling on Mosul are dropped by the United States and its allies (and thus explode with benign intent). “In both cities,” writes Patrick Cockburn, “Salafi-jihadi Sunni Arab insurgents were defending their last big urban strongholds against the Iraqi Army, in the case of Mosul, and the Syrian Army, in the case of east Aleppo.” Later he contends that, notwithstanding ISIS’ fierce resistance, “the Iraqi army will probably take Mosul, though by then it may not look much different from east Aleppo.” In other words, the battle for Mosul is no cleaner than was the battle for Aleppo; it’s just as ruthless, just as destructive. Various reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch bear this out.

Indiscriminate Bombing, Torture and Summary Executions

On December 21, Amnesty International published a report titled “Children Caught in the Crossfire of the Battle for Mosul Suffer Horrific Injuries and Trauma.” In it they describe how “war-wounded children … find themselves in hospitals overflowing with patients, or in camps for displaced people, where dire humanitarian conditions make their physical and psychological recovery even more difficult. Many others remain trapped in areas where the fighting is raging.” They proceed to quote an elderly woman who lost two granddaughters in an airstrike: “My grandchildren had fled their home and had been staying in a neighbor’s basement for the past thirty days. They had run out of food and water completely. The area was recaptured by the army two days earlier so they thought it was safe to go out, but they were bombed as they reached the gate of the courtyard.” Concluding their report, Amnesty asserts that “despite Iraqi and coalition forces’ assurances that they are doing their utmost to protect civilians, every day children are dying or being injured—in their homes or as they risk their lives to flee to safety.” Sounds like a report out of Aleppo, no?

Another report from November 9 examines claims that residents in and around Mosul have been tortured and summarily executed by Iraqi security forces. According to Amnesty’s investigation, there is evidence to suggest that “up to six people were exrajudicially executed in late October, apparently due to suspicions they had ties to” ISIS. Deputy Director for Research Lynn Maalouf explains how “men in Federal Police uniform have carried out multiple unlawful killings, apprehending and then deliberately killing in cold blood residents in villages south of Mosul. In some cases the residents were tortured before they were shot dead execution-style.” In one specific incident, three men—two of whom were identified as Ahmed Mahmoud Dakhil and Rashid Ali Khalaf—were “separated from the larger group [of villagers]. Men in Federal Police uniforms then subjected them to particularly brutal beatings before shooting them dead. Their decomposing remains were found in the same area some five days later. Rashid Ali Khalaf’s head had been severed from his body.”

On December 18, Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed a separate incident in which an “Iraqi government-backed militia … executed at least four men they suspected of affiliation with the Islamic State,” adding that “murder of prisoners in a conflict is a war crime.” Witnesses testified that members of the Iraqi army were present when the killings took place “and stood idly by while they witnessed at least one execution.”

(You may be tempted to argue that the Iraqi government can’t, or shouldn’t, be held to account for the behavior of militias, in which case I would ask that you bear in mind what Jan Egeland, UN humanitarian advisor on Syria, wrote on Twitter when east Aleppo was liberated in December: “The Gov’ts of Syria & Russia are accountable for any and all atrocities that the victorious militias in Aleppo are now committing!” If we are to apply that principle consistently, not only does the Iraqi government bear responsibility for the crimes of militiamen, but so too does the United States government.)

In a related article, HRW reports that a pro-government militia “detained and beat at least 22 men from two villages near Mosul.” Furthermore, the same unit “had been recruiting child soldiers from a camp for internally displaced people since the spring.” Nevertheless, the article continues, “senior US military commanders … say they are so far impressed with the behavior of the Iraqi forces.” No doubt senior members of the Syrian Arab Army were equally impressed with the behavior of their troops in Aleppo.

Targeting of Hospitals

Russia was bombing hospitals in Aleppo. At least the United States isn’t bombing hospitals in Mosul, right? Wrong. On December 8, HRW published an article calling on the US-led coalition to investigate a “precision strike” on the al-Salam hospital in Mosul city. The coalition had justified the attack by stating that ISIS was “using [the hospital] as a base of operations and command and control headquarters.” However, “the statement makes no mention of whether there were civilian casualties at the hospital that was [according to local residents] still very much operational. Perhaps more disturbing, there is no mention of whether the coalition took a key measure required by international law—to issue an effective warning—so civilians could escape.”

(You’ll recall that similar claims made by the Syrian and Russian governments—that jihadist rebels were exploiting hospitals in Aleppo for military purposes—were dismissed out of hand by Western commentators. Under no circumstances, they said, was it admissible to bomb a hospital.)

Less than two months earlier, a health clinic south of Mosul was all but destroyed by either an Iraqi or coalition warplane. According to a report by HRW, “on October 18, without warning, an airstrike hit the local clinic in the town of Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul, which was under ISIS control…. The healthcare workers said that the attack … killed at least eight civilians, including five children, and wounded at least two more.” While an office of the clinic was indeed occupied by ISIS, it nonetheless remained “the main healthcare facility in the area, serving about 70,000 civilians in the town and neighboring villages.”

A member of the staff said the clinic was housing around fifty patients when it was struck. Among those killed in the attack were “a 72-year-old man and his two grandsons, aged 6 and 7, whom he had taken to the hospital for polio vaccinations…. In the same ward … a nurse was killed and another was wounded, with a metal fragment to her shoulder. Three more children were killed in the treatment ward adjacent to the ISIS office. A young man who ran a small convenience store at the entrance of the clinic was also killed. The clinic’s pharmacist’s leg was broken.”

Media Silence and Distortion

A search of the New York Times article database turns up zero references to either of the Mosul hospital bombings documented by HRW. One is similarly hard pressed to find any mention of the various atrocities carried out by pro-government militias. No surprise there; the Times has never been particularly keen on broadcasting crimes committed by the United States and its allies. Of course, when they do occasionally decide to acknowledge the elephant in the room, it is invariably done through the optics of empire. For example, a November 9 article in the Times quotes a handful of US military officials who insist that the United States had killed a total of 119 civilians in Iraq and Syria since 2014—a remarkable number given Amnesty International’s declaration that, in June and July 2016 alone, “more than 100 civilians are reported to have been killed in suspected coalition attacks on the Manbij area of northern Syria.”

Here’s how it works: human rights organizations document scores of civilian casualties (Amnesty claims to have credible evidence of some 300 casualties in Syria alone since 2014, while other groups have the death toll much higher); the US military deigns to investigate itself and inevitably arrives at a much smaller number; the New York Times uncritically publishes that number. For instance, the Times article states that as part of its review of itself, “the military investigated 257 allegations of civilian casualties and deemed 31 of them credible”—or twelve percent. I’m willing to bet internal reviews conducted by the Russian and Syrian militaries yield similar findings; the difference, of course, is that we would never accept those findings as legitimate, and that any media outlet (e.g. RT) who published them uncritically would be castigated for spewing pro-government propaganda. Again, this seems like it would be self-evident. Not so.

Sometimes the US media lose whatever self-control they otherwise possess and wind up pushing their disinformation into the realm of absurdity. The venerable Washington Post can usually be relied upon to exemplify what I’m talking about. They’ve come through yet again, this time with a piece by Jackson Diehl titled “There’s Good News in Mosul—For Now.” Published on Christmas, well after the human rights reports I’ve summarized above were made available, the column draws a sharp distinction between the situations in Aleppo and Mosul. Indeed, Diehl actually uses his lede to lament the fact that our media’s obsession with Aleppo has distracted from the feel-good story of Mosul. “Humanitarian agencies and human rights monitors,” Diehl informs us, “say they have been shocked—in a good way—by the behavior of the US-backed Iraqi forces that are slowly recapturing the city from the Islamic State.” He goes on: “There is no indiscriminate bombing or shelling of apartment buildings; no executions of women and children; no mass disappearances of men.”

Sweet mother of Christ! I wonder which human rights groups exist in Diehl’s alternate reality? (For the Iraqi government’s sterling record on mass disappearances, download and read this report from Amnesty International.) Central to his thesis is a study by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which simply examines the conditions in three refugee camps outside of Mosul. In other words, it carries no information whatever about the tactics currently being employed by the Iraqi security forces to recapture the city. And while a majority of respondents said their needs were somewhat or mostly being met in the camps, the NRC emphasizes, more than once, that “this was almost definitely a reflection of the negative experiences of respondents’ recent pasts [when they lived under ISIS] rather than of a positive situation in the camps.” So Diehl has either misread the report or deliberately misled his readers. I’ll let you be the judge.

After citing inflated casualty figures out of Aleppo (his source, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, is run by a single person living in Britain), Diehl quotes Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher, Belkis Wille, as saying that, unlike the sinister Syrian army, “the Iraqi security forces are behaving well.” No link is provided, however, so we don’t know the context in which Wille made that assertion, if she in fact made it. Considering that Wille authored at least one of the reports detailing atrocities (torture, executions, etc.) by Iraqi forces in Mosul, her alleged blanket approval of their behavior is somewhat difficult to fathom.

From the forgoing Diehl concludes, boldly, that “in Mosul there is [a] civilian protection strategy embraced by the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi under US tutelage.” And he juxtaposes that distorted characterization with “the scorched-earth, indiscriminate-massacre paradigm of Russia, Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.” (You’ll notice how Assad always superintends a “regime,” as opposed to a government.) On a roll, Diehl makes one more self-satisfied allusion to the imagined “disparity between Russian-Iranian brutality and US-Iraqi humaneness” before wrapping it all up with a grim reminder that, with President Trump on the horizon, “the humanitarians quietly celebrating Mosul now have much to fear in the near future.”

Thank heavens for “US-Iraqi humaneness.” Without it our righteous, unrelenting condemnation of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, and every other official enemy of the United States, would constitute a truly novel degree of cynicism.

Coming back down to Earth, it’s worth recalling that ISIS, and the savagery they’ve visited on the people of Iraq and Syria, emerged from, and spread as a result of, the hideous conditions wrought by George W. Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq—a fine example of the vaunted US “humaneness” Jackson Diehl and his fellow travelers in the mainstream media are so proud of. Likewise, the tragic fate of Aleppo—and, indeed, all of Syria—would have been appreciably less so had the US and its allies not sharply (and illegally) escalated the conflict by providing material and diplomatic support to the virtuous “moderate rebels,” who differ from the universally-loathed ISIS in name only.

But never mind all that; it’s better to continue giving resonance to the late Gore Vidal’s famous backronym for USA. Isn’t it?